Dec 31, 2012 4:06pm
Here's one you missed that should be on your list...
My Aunt....Judy Freudberg
Died at 63 in NYC back in June.
Judy was a screen writer (Land Before Time and Follow that Bird) but was more known for her years of writing for Sesame Street earning over 15 Emmys. She was head writer of the Elmo's World segment that appeared at the end of the show in the 90's. Here is a piece from NYTimes Magazine that ran last Sunday
Happy New Year.
B. 1949 | By CARINA CHOCANO
Judy Freudberg and Elmo. (Sesame Workshop)
I WON’T GO SO FAR AS TO BLAME ELMO for my delay in becoming a parent, but I won’t entirely let him off the hook either. For a moment in the late ’90s, Elmo, like Barney, came to stand for all that was wrong with “parenting” — this terrible-seeming new version of adulthood that was frantically sublimated to the cult of the child. Nobody actually said this, of course. Instead, the criticisms centered on Elmo’s annoying baby talk and his obnoxious habit of referring to himself in the third person. Mostly, though, what really seemed to get people going was his Eve Harrington-esque displacement of older, less flagrantly adorable “Sesame Street” characters like Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch.
There’s something about our collective Elmo-phobia that now looks a little hypocritical. We were the first generation never to know a time before “Sesame Street” (the show made its debut in 1969); arguably the first to extend our adolescence into whatever decade we liked; and probably the first to take our pop-culture memories deadly personally. We are purists. We like our Muppets old-school. And we also tended to remain childless well past the age at which our parents were well and fully saddled. In other words, despite (or maybe because of) our role in the infantilization of the culture, we resented its usurpation by actual children; interloping, squeaky-voiced baby Muppet not excepted.
Elmo has been around as a background character forever — since the late ’70s — but he didn’t really become Elmo, as we know him, until 1984, when Kevin Clash (who has since become the subject of an off-screen scandal) gave Elmo his trademark falsetto, his giggle and his emotional trademark, which is love. This reimagined Elmo was an instant hit with preschoolers and Rosie O’Donnell and was soon making the rounds on talk shows and starring in Christmas specials. His popularity reached its awful apex during the 1996 Christmas season, when the Tickle Me Elmo craze/shortage culminated in the trampling of a Walmart employee. At the time, Elmo seemed to be taking over the world. Then, thankfully, someone gave Elmo a world all his own.
If Clash gave Elmo his voice and laugh, it was Judy Freudberg, a creator and lead writer of the “Elmo’s World” segment, who plucked Elmo in 1998 from the clutches of toxic runaway stardom and embued him with the more lovable characteristics we recognize now: his vivid imagination, his quasi-imaginary goldfish friend, his self-expressive crayon, his infinitely amusing Noodles. And it’s this world that Freuberg and her fellow writers created that’s the most radical thing about Elmo in the end. In Freudberg’s obituary in The Times, a colleague called her the “moral barometer” of the show, and when you start to break down “Elmo’s World,” you understand what they mean.
The pre-Elmo “Sesame Street” I grew up with seemed incredibly sophisticated to me at the time, but looking back I realize it was simply fascinating in that mysterious and perplexing way that adult things are to a child. The humor was shticky, vaudevillian — almost intentionally outdated. It was also thoroughly adult in its reliance on frustration, exasperation and anxiety. There was something about the badump-bump rhythms of Ernie torturing Bert with his I-can’t-hear-you-Bert-I’ve-got-a-banana-in-my-ear bit that was flattering, somehow, in that it made me feel privy to relational complexities I didn’t really understand.
It wasn’t until I started watching Elmo with my daughter that I realized that his simple relationships with his goldfish and his preverbal baby friends were satisfying in a way that Grover’s incompetent waiter/exasperated customer routine could never be. (And I say this as someone who thought Grover’s waiter bit was about as deathless as it got, comedywise.) This isn’t to say that our culture hasn’t become childcentric in the extreme, but it’s also a little sad and alarming to look back and realize how thoroughly hammy and grown-up children’s entertainment used to be. Of course adults hate Elmo. Elmo’s not for adults.
The other day, I asked my 4- year-old daughter what she liked best about Elmo. She said — and this is what Freudberg brought to Elmo — it was that he let her see what’s inside his imagination, and she made this sound like the most reasonable, neighborly thing a person could do. Toddlers love Elmo because his inner world reflects their own inner worlds, which are tiny and intimate yet infinite and without constraints. Elmo’s world is their world: a place in which a guy putting his pants on his head constitutes the height of hilarity, in which your crayon and your goldfish and your computer exist on the same metaphysical plane and you love them all without reservation.
Carina Chocano is a frequent contributor to the magazine.